Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Valenti's Purity Myth

"While boys are taught that the things that make them men - good men- are universally accepted ethical ideals, women are led to believe that our moral compass lies somewhere between our legs.  Literally." (Valenti, 2009, p. 13)

Virginity is a  convoluted subject.  What is the act that marks the loss of virginity?  Why does North American culture suggest that all females must be good, wholesome girls who wait to 'lose' their virginity on their wedding night while our culture is so sexualized in and of itself?  How do we, as young women, balance these two contrasting roles - the highly sexualized and the highly de-sexualized persona of womanhood?

I watched Jessica Valenti's new documentary film The Purity Myth: How America's Obsession with Virginity Is Hurting Young Women last week and read her book of the same title when it was first published in 2009.  I absolutely adore Valenti and credit much of my current feminist views and position in life to her work (* one of her previous books led me to question my own down-spiraling relationship with nutrition and I am forever grateful for being introduced to her prose during my undergraduate education*).  Thus, I tend to read and watch anything that has her name on it - what can I say, I'm hooked.

The Purity Myth, both book and film, sheds light onto the North American (*cough* conservative) obsession with female virginity and popular culture's suggestion that women are sex symbols and objects.  At a young age, many of us ladies are taught that as a female we must look pretty for men.  And how do we get a boyfriend?  By flaunting our assets.  The government tells us that we should be virgins but our culture tells us we are sexual objects for males.  Valenti does an excellent job in exploring this theme.

However, Valenti's work stood out to me for another reason.  She claims that women are judged on virginity above all other aspects of our being (ie: personality, beliefs, achievements...) but that there is no actual definition of 'virginity.'  What makes someone a virgin is a sticky subject - as mentioned in the beginning of this post - there are so many different forms of sexual activity and interpretations of the very word.  As exclaimed by Hanne Blank, "People have been talking authoritatively about virginity for thousands of years, yet we don't even have a working medical definition for it!" (Valenti, 2009, p 20).  And furthermore, "if [losing] virginity is simply the first time someone has sex, then what is sex?  If it's just heterosexual intercourse, then we'd have to come to the fairly ridiculous conclusion that all lesbians and gay men are virgins, and that different kinds of intimacy, like oral sex, mean nothing.  And when using the straight-intercourse model of sex as a gauge, we'd have to get into the down-and-dirty conversation of what constitutes penetration" (Valenti, 2009, p. 20).

Valenti's work analyzes this conundrum and highlights the role of virginity in society.  I would recommend this work - either book or film - for anyone interested in gender studies or popular culture.  It is an eye-opening, revolutionary exploration of modern sexuality and values.

Bibliographical Information:
Valenti, J.  (2009).  The purity myth: How America's obsession with virginity is hurting young women.  Berkeley: Seal Press.

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